Sunday, April 3, 2016

What Would You Do? What Should You Do?

You're in a restaurant and a nearby customer is verbally abusing his female server for not bringing his meal more quickly.  The customer says he's had to wait 45 minutes for his dinner and he's blaming the server for the delay.  The server, a young Hispanic woman, is clearly shaken by the intensity and nastiness of his complaints. She does her best to calm him down, apologizing for the delay and even offering to reduce his tab.  But the more she tries to make things right, the louder and more menacing he becomes.  When he refers to her as an "incompetent slut who ought to go back to Mexico," you decide he's definitely crossed the line.  You consider saying something about his crude behavior but aren't sure if you should get involved or what exactly you should say.  

Scenes like this (maybe without a bit of the vitriol) play out each week on John Quinones's award-winning ABC show, "What Would You Do?"  The show features situations in which ordinary human beings must decide whether to respond to an act of bullying, bigotry, injustice, dishonesty, or something equally horrible.  The situations are staged ("aggressors" and "victims" are actors playing roles), so that only the onlookers are unaware that the actions they're witnessing are scripted.  The ultimate focus of each episode is on the onlookers' actions, which are discussed in detail once Quinones appears on the scene and announces that the situation at hand is in fact part of his show.

After eight seasons, "What Would You Do?" remains incredibly popular, probably because its situations bear a striking resemblance to those we sometimes encounter in our own lives.  Almost all of us witness behaviors, at least on occasion, that involve the mistreatment of others.  Whether it's a homeless man being harassed by obnoxious teens, a Muslim woman denied a seat in a restaurant, a kid with Downs' syndrome hassled by insensitive supermarket customers, or a young teen publicly and mercilessly berated by his mother for failing a test in school, we find ourselves in situations that cry out for a response.  The show asks us to think about our responsibility to those who are bullied, harassed, ridiculed, cheated, exploited, and/or otherwise dumped on by others.  It asks whether we have an obligation to speak up when faced with injustice, even when we ourselves are not the objects of tormentors.

In other words, it asks us to grapple with that huge question: What's the right thing to do?

Facing up to our responsibility to others (and to our role in life's bigger picture) isn't easy, especially when the alternative--looking the other way--seems a whole lot neater and less complicated.  But coming to grips with that responsibility is critical to becoming a full-fledged human being.  Shows like "What Would You Do?" get us thinking, always a good thing, about the impact and implications of our actions.  So do many college classes, of course, especially those involving the study of literature, ethics, and morality.  The journey to adulthood can be rocky and confusing sometimes, but it's hard to imagine a college education without it.

Tomorrow at 9:30 a.m. in the College Center, John Quinones will be on campus to talk about his life, his show, and the issues"What Would You Do?" raises.  His talk, part of NCC's spring cultural program, will be one of the highlights of the semester--a chance to meet and speak with someone whose show draws us away from our own concerns and encourages us to think about another's. Don't miss this event.  It will leave you with plenty to think about.